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Can Performance-Based Scholarships Boost Success?

By Emily Rogan

Administrators at Florida’s Hillsborough Community College discuss their experiences with an incentive-based remedial math program.

As colleges look to reduce the number of students enrolled in remedial coursework, one Florida-based community college is experimenting with incentives that reward students for making the jump from noncredit to for-credit education.

In 2010 Hillsborough Community College (HCC) launched the Mathematics Access Performance Scholarship (MAPS). The pilot project awards scholarships worth $1,800, given over three semesters, to students enrolled in remedial mathematics courses, assuming the students stay in the program and meet predetermined academic goals.

Earlier this month, researchers at MDRC, which helped create MAPS, released an analysis of the scholarship. While the scholarships had a positive effect on remedial course completion — AACC’s Community College Daily reported that 90 percent of MAPS students earned the incentive during their first semester — many students failed to reenroll in the second and third semesters.

Though these scholarships do not solve the problems faced by remedial math students — year-to-year persistence being one — researchers said the funds offer students a small “push” in the right direction.

To find out more about MAPS and how it works, we reached out to Craig Johnson, vice president of academic affairs at HCC, and Judy Alicea, special projects coordinator responsible for MAPS implementation at the college.

What made HCC consider a performance-based scholarship initiative?

Johnson: In general, we know students have a problem with developmental math; students’ pattern of behavior is to complete one developmental math class, stop, and then go back and try to finish later. The result is they are often unsuccessful. So it was an issue of interrupted math sequences and lack of completion.

We hoped we could influence behavior to keep students moving through the math sequence — developmental, elementary algebra, then college-level math — to help them see that they should get it done while their math skills were fresh.

How was the program created?

Alicea: We compiled a list of eligible students who were at least 18 years old, showed financial need and required the course. We communicated with students through direct mail, email and electronic phone messaging.

Johnson: Students were offered a gift card to come to the initial seminar explaining the program. Then, students were randomly selected to be part of the control or participant group.

For each course, the students received $100 to sign up, then $500 to complete the course with an A, B or C grade. Those who moved on to the next course in the sequence again received $100 to sign up and $500 to complete with the same grades. The same held true for the third math class, in sequence. They had up to four semesters to complete the process (including summer break). Five hours of tutorial lab work was required for the first course; three hours were required for the second, and none were required for the third.

As a bonus, students who earned an A or B were rewarded with the textbook for the next course. Students in focus groups said that pushed them a little harder.

What have been the results so far?

Alicea: There weren’t many surprises as far as findings. We did learn that incentives will bring students into tutorial labs, and that those who received tutoring fared better than those who did not. We had a system in place to track who was coming, but the study gave us the tools to fine-tune what we were doing on a broader scale.

Johnson: There were modest results, but we find that to be true of the majority of academic interventions. We look for steady gains and try to align a variety of student success-oriented activities so the cumulative effect is positive.

There has also been a clear message communicated from the math faculty to the students: If you stay in sequence and keep moving, you tend to be more successful.

What are your impressions of the program?

Alicea: We all want to move the needle in terms of improving student success, and this is an innovative way to do that. We try many things, knowing not one is the silver bullet. Based on literature from across the nation, this is a cutting-edge way to disperse funding, modified to fit Hillsborough’s culture.

Does your college use performance-based funding as an incentive for students. Tell us about it in the Comments.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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